April 7, 2013
Call to Worship – Ralph Waldo Emerson
I can believe a miracle because I can raise my own arm.
I can believe a miracle because I can remember.
I can believe it because I can speak and be understood by you.
Reading – Miracles by Walt Whitman (from Leaves of Grass)
Why, who makes much of a miracle?
As to me I know of nothing else but miracles,
Whether I walk the streets of Manhattan,
Or dart my sight over the roofs of houses toward the sky,
Or wade with naked feet along the beach just in the edge of the water,
Or stand under trees in the woods,
Or talk by day with anyone I love, or sleep in the bed at night with anyone I love,
Or sit at table at dinner with the rest,
Or look at strangers opposite me riding in the car,
Or watch honey-bees busy around the hive of a summer forenoon,
Or animals feeding in the fields,
Or birds, or the wonderfulness of insects in the air,
Or the wonderfulness of the sundown, or of stars shining so quiet and bright,
Or the exquisite delicate thin curve of the new moon in spring;
These with the rest, one and all, are to me miracles, The whole referring, yet each distinct and in its place.
To me every hour of the light and dark is a miracle,
Every cubic inch of space is a miracle,
Every square yard of the surface of the earth is spread with the same,
Every foot of the interior swarms with the same.
To me the sea is a continual miracle,
The fishes that swim—the rocks—the motion of the waves—
the ships with men in them,
What stranger miracles are there?
Reading – Here If You Need Me by Kate Braestrup
A miracle is not defined by an event. A miracle is defined by gratitude.
A string of coincidences stretching far back in human history converge to place a young woman in a parking lot at the very moment when a murderer happens by. A similar string of coincidences place a premature infant named Michael in a high-tech teaching hospital where a gifted doctor works to save him.
Why? Why not?
Anything could happen, but only one thing will. If it is what we desire, what we long for so badly we feel it burning in our bones, if by chance this is given, we will fall on our grateful knees, praise God, and call it a miracle. And we will not be wrong.
Sermon: The Miracle
It is a miracle.
It is a miracle that you are here today, and a miracle that I am. Just think of all it took for us to gather in this space. It was a miracle we each woke this morning, and were able to get out of bed. It was probably a miracle to get the whole family showered and dressed and ready for the day. It might be a miracle you were on time this morning. It was a miracle we made it here safely, hopefully without accident or incident. It was a miracle that every car I passed this morning stayed in its lane, and that each driver was paying attention … well, for the most part. It is a miracle that we have gathered here. And for that I am grateful.
Just the other day I was walking my dogs, which always tests my patience. For those of you who don’t know, I have two dogs, each weighing over 40 pounds. I would bring them here, except one is particularly energetic and loud.
Checkers likes to chase birds and Lela chases squirrels, and both of them LOVE the leftover bread and rolls the nice man on the bench leaves to feed those ducks and squirrels. Well, if Lela and Checkers get their way, they are the only one’s who would get any bread! It’s a miracle I still have my shoulder muscles intact!
Of course, this has nothing to do with my sermon. Except that as I was walking the dogs last week, I heard a loud crash behind me. Not down the street, not a block away, but directly behind me. I jumped up, and the dogs with me, and we all looked back to see what had happened. Well, three feet behind me, there was a pile of shattered glass splattered across the sidewalk. As I looked up, I saw what had happened.
A window had fallen from the fourth floor of the building. The entire window; not just one pane, but the entire thing – wooden frame and all – lay shattered and broken across the sidewalk. It was right behind me!
As I looked up from the pile of glass, I locked eyes with another woman, who was about three feet behind where the window had fallen. In that moment, we both realized that had she been walking faster, and I slower, we would have been seriously hurt … or worse. I was frightened, and the adrenaline was pumping, and I thought to myself, “This is totally going in my miracle sermon!”
Because it was a miracle! At least it was something that could be considered a miracle. And it was certainly the best example I could think of to describe my experience of a miracle.
A miracle can be described as an event that defies logic, or when things don’t go as expected and we are pleasantly surprised. A miracle can defy the statistical analysis that determines just how likely it was that a window might fall onto me on that particular day.
A miracle can be lots of things.
A basketball team from a college in Florida makes it to the Sweet 16; or a young girl in Pakistan returns to school after the Taliban tried to take her life; or a teacher in Connecticut uses her own body to shield her students from a man who has come to do them harm. These are miracles.
Of course we can trace back the logical process of how these events came to be. When we take into consideration the elements of practice and the commitment of time that it takes for a team of basketball players to make it that far, it may make sense. We think of the hours of sweat, blood, and tears – and the support of fans.
We think about the medical care necessary to recover from a tragic wound to the head. Yes, of course, the surgery and the recovery time, and the therapies to regain speech and motor skills. Logically, it may make sense how that girl survived.
And it was that teacher’s job to protect her students, it was the only choice she had! But she could have chosen not to. But because we can logically think something through or understand it does not make these things any less amazing.
In our second reading today, Kate Braestrup affirms that a miracle is not determined by an event, but by gratitude. Braestrup reflects on the idea of miracles and gratitude as she thinks of the story of Jesus healing the lepers. In that story, Jesus heals ten lepers and makes them clean, and one praises God and Jesus as he prostrates himself at His feet. She notes that this person was the only who had received a miracle, as indicated by his gratitude.
Braestrup then writes, “all ten lepers were made clean; all ten went on to live whatever new life was afforded them thereby. We can be confident that all ten suffered other wounds, for life is wounding, and that all ten died, for life is also terminal. All ten have since gone to dust and story.”
She goes on to write, “sometimes the miracle is a life restored, but the restoration is always temporary. At other times, maybe most of the time, a miracle can only be the resurrection of love beside the unchanged fact of death.”
Now I can assure you that I was thankful that window did not fall on me. I was equally grateful that it did not fall on the woman walking just behind me, or on my dogs. I was thankful that there was no person or animal injured in that event. And yet, I was reminded things could have been otherwise.
That basketball team is thankful, I am sure of that. And Malala is grateful to be returning to school – having inspired many girls and making history in the process. And those families in Connecticut are grateful for the courage in the classrooms on that day in December.
The amazement, and wonder, and gratitude make these things miracles.
Windows fall, or tree limbs do … car accidents happen, and people are hurt. Gravity happens. And that same force that keeps us grounded on this earth, and keeps us from spinning off into space, is one that can do immense levels of damage. This is why my car insurance policy has a clause for “acts of God” – there are things we cannot even imagine.
Accidents happen, and so do miracles. And the world keeps spinning and tilting anyway. For most people, potentially catastrophic events like having a window almost fall on you, or children’s lives cut short at school, bring things into perspective. It is in these moments that we are reminded of our mortality. We are reminded that we are not invincible, and that we are vulnerable creatures. We will not live forever.
The Rev. Forrest Church once said that religion is our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die. I certainly believe that to be true, and I think that Unitarian Universalism has a beautiful message to offer while living in the in between.
This morning we heard a song about a change in faith, and practice, and understanding of what makes a thing holy. I can imagine that many of you can relate to Peter Mayer’s experience of growing up. Perhaps the most poignant line in that song comes toward the beginning … “I remember feeling sad that miracles don’t happen still.”
It is sad. As we grow older we come to understand that much of what we believed as children isn’t as wonderful as we once thought. We learn things about the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy, and Santa. It’s like our little childhood wonder bubble is just popped over and over and over again. Slowly our ability to see this world with wonder fades.
And it can be this way with God too.
Perhaps we were raised to believe in a God that would care for us and parent us; to believe in a God that knew our every thought and desire. Perhaps we believed that miracles meant that we were special, and we were chosen, and good things would come our way.
Or perhaps we weren’t raised that way. Maybe we have never had a concept of a God, and we’ve always believed that this is all there is. Perhaps we have put our hopes and dreams in the hands of our loved ones and taken those dreams up on our own, convinced that we don’t need any assistance or guidance from a higher power. And what’s beautiful about these two perspectives, and all those in between, is there is still room for miracles.
Whether we believe in a God or not, things will happen that will shock us, and that we have not expected. There will be times when we beat the odds, even when they are stacked high against us. There will be days when we come face to face with our mortality in a way that changes the way we live.
There will be times when we are so taken aback by a sunset or a sunrise, and pause to reflect on how tiny we truly are in this universe. And each of these times is a space for a miracle.
Oftentimes it is in these moments when we feel that childhood spark of wonder rekindled. It is in those moments that we put understanding aside, and ignore logic, to simply be in reverence at the miracle of this life. We realize that many miracles are not about splitting water in two, or turning it to wine, but in connection and love and compassion.
I feel so blessed to have been raised in this faith. Because unlike Peter Mayer’s experience of church, where he learned that certain water was sacred and certain places were holy, I was taught that it all is. I remember leaving church each week reminded of the beauty in this world and how it is all a miracle.
I also remember goldfish crackers and apple juice. And I remember the people. I remember that they cared about me, and what I had to say. And as a small child, that felt like a bit of a miracle. Our religious community is a miracle. It is that community that picks up the broken pieces and helps us put them back together again. It is that community that serves as our daily reminder of love. It is our community that brings together our waters each Ingathering Sunday, to join together in a pool of lived experience of wonder and of miracle. It is our community that gathers the waters from near and far to acknowledge our connection to one another and to this beautiful world, and to give thanks for our tiny place in it.
I’m reminded of the biblical story of the Tower of Babel. It is found in the book of Genesis, and tells the story of the time following the Great Flood. At that time all the people on the earth spoke the same language, and they gathered in a city to build a tower. God realized that as a united group with one language, nothing they sought would be out of their reach. And so, God scattered the people across the world and made it so that they would not be able to understand each other’s words. They stopped building the tower and the city became known as the city of Babel, from the Hebrew term “balal” meaning “to jumble.” It is a story that explains the variance in human language.
In our opening words this morning we are reminded by Emerson of the wonder of community, and of our mutual understanding. He writes “I believe a miracle because I can speak and be understood by you.” Now, our context is a bit different than Emerson’s. We live in a more integrated world where we are much more likely to come across people who speak a different language than us. And yet, his message rings true.
We speak to one another in many different ways. We speak with our faces, our bodies, and our actions. Our ability to communicate nonverbally is one that has withstood the test of time. Yes, of course different cultures have different ways of communicating things. And some of our ways of non-verbal communication have a different meaning in another culture.
When I was in Ghana, I learned that a “thumbs up” was equivalent to our hand motion of a “middle finger” and I quickly realized how often I use the “thumbs up” sign when trying to communicate over language barriers. Whoops!
But there were other times when communication over language barriers went more smoothly. A hand reaching out in greeting and thanksgiving for companionship; the offering of a cool drink of water to say “you are welcome among us,” or the motion to come inside and be comfortable during a visit. These are ways of understanding that transcend geography and language. Perhaps these are reminders of our common humanity, and our shared experience of oneness so long ago in Babel.
I believe a miracle because I can speak and be understood by you.
My friends, we are swimming in a sea of miracles. If we go thru life with our noses to the grindstone, tumbling into the next moment, we might miss the glorious things this life has to offer.
At times we will find that spark of wonder fading from its vibrancy of our youth. It is at those times that we must remember to wonder and to embrace the unknown. Yes, we might be able to understand how something happens, and see just how the pieces fit together. We might fully understand how a thing works, but we might never fully understand why.
We cannot make sense of all the wonder in this world.
May the curiosity of our spirit never be quenched, and may we always thirst for more understanding and growth. May we remember to live with gratitude. May we remember our vulnerability, and find hope in our strength. Let us continue to build a beloved community here, in this life – one that is rich with miracles of love and compassion.
May it be so. Amen. Blessed be.
Closing Words – by Kate Braestrup
A grateful heart beats in a world of miracles. If I could only speak one prayer for you, my children, it would be that your hearts would not only beat but grow ever greater in gratitude, that your lives, however long they prove to be and no matter how they end, continue to bring you miracles in abundance.